Spent some time this morning reading an excellent essay by J.I. Packer, A Stunted Ecclesiology: The Theory and Practice of Evangelical Churches (Touchstone, December 2002). Packer addresses the role of tradition in the development of an evangelical ecclesiology, and issues a plea for recognizing the centrality of the church in the purposes of God in light of some of the salient problems facing the evangelical church today. I highly recommend this essay-- noting that we might be surprised with some of Packer's proposals for the way forward.
Below is a selection from the essay's introduction.
What is in the mind of evangelicals when they speak of the evangelical church? They are not using the singular noun in what would be a secular way, that is, to signify a statistical and organizational collective, though of course the global evangelical fellowship is that, and may be so viewed if sociology is one’s concern. But in fact their use of this phrase is voicing the same sort of claim to authenticity as Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians express when they identify themselves as belonging to the church. This small c use of the word church (large c reduces it to a group label) carries the thought of the one body of Christ on earth, of which all believers are in some sense members, but which takes its most proper form in the circle of communion to which each of the adjectival qualifiers (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and now evangelical) is pointing.
Believers using any one of these three distinguishing labels for self-identification express thereby, in an informal and subtextual way, their belief, not that God is content to have three communities of saints side by side, but that here is the particular road that ideally all God’s people would be taking together. The ecumenical exchanges of the past century have brought an awareness of this churchly inkling (often not more, but never less) as undergirding the sometimes perplexing phenomenon of separation justifying itself; and when evangelicals speak of the evangelical church, the same inkling is involved. There is here, in fact, a recognizable renewal of the sense of churchly reality that lay at the heart of the sixteenth-century reformation.